No less an economic mind than Adam Smith was stumped by this challenge. As he famously observed, “Nothing is more useful than water: but it will purchase scarcely anything. A diamond, on the contrary, has scarcely any use-value; but a very great quantity of other goods may frequently be had in exchange for it.”
The problem of valuing water is far from academic. Societies around the globe are increasingly facing the task of difficult tradeoffs between different uses of water. While in most countries the majority of human water use goes to growing crops, cities and ecosystems are getting thirstier as a result of growing populations, economic development, and climate change.
Water quality, too, is deteriorating in many areas because of pollution, and far too many people still lack access to safe and dependable sources of clean water.
Without a common set of principles for valuing the contribution that water makes to both people and the planet, it’s hard to tackle these challenges.
Last week, the United Nations High Level Panel on Water gathered a group of experts to chart a path towards agreeing on a set of common principles for valuing the world’s most precious resource. The Panel, co-convened the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the President of the World Bank Group, is charged with mobilizing action to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, many of which depend on managing water more effectively. The Panel recognizes that action is critical, and aims to build momentum toward a common vision for better stewardship of our water.
Participants agreed that valuing water is an important part of that vision—but that previous attempts to value water more effectively have encountered a number of challenges, including the difficulty of capturing its importance to so many different sectors, activities, and species. The meeting concluded that valuing water effectively means developing an inclusive, consultation-driven process to articulate a set of principles for how to capture the many different values of water, including for economies, ecosystems, cultures, and religions. It also means building on the efforts of many groups around the world who have tried to tackle this issue in the past. The participants agreed on the need to develop a roadmap for soliciting views from all segments of the water stakeholder community, including agriculture, energy and other sectors, on how water should be valued.